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Monday, June 6, 2011


Busycon caniculatum -- Busycon canaliculatum – the channeled whelk

Today was an usual day. I spent the day watching the Bolsa (stock market) tank because of a series of bad economic data. Bored in the early afternoon, I decided to rest in bed. While day dreaming I was brought back to a time many, many years ago when I was at a very small beach across the street from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I spent 2 summers there between after my fourth year of college and the first year of medical school. I worked at the MBL in the chemistry lab dispensing chemicals and making chemical solutions for the scientists working there. It was a great job where I met many of the top scientists around the world working on biological projects, many on experiments with marine animals.

Every day after work and on weekends I used to lie on the very small beach with Ginger, my loyal Golden Retriever, across the street from MBL. It was not a swimming beach, so I snorkeled and watched marine life in the 2 – 3- feet of water. It was very quiet there so much so that while snorkeling with my ears under water I began to hear faint grinding sounds. Further observations drew me to these amazing conches that I used to see in the Italian seafood markets in Boston. They were edible and the Italians, and I am sure other people bought them for cooking. In fact, my father bought some home to cook one day. Boy, were they rubbery. I guess we did not know how to prepare them because I have tasted conches in restaurants over the years and they were tender.

So this was my introduction to conches, otherwise known as the channeled whelk, Busycon caniculatum or canaliculatum. These crustaceans are found in waters of Cape Cod (where I was) south to Northern Florida. They were also introduced into San Francisco Bay. Commercial fishermen who sell them in local markets harvest the channeled whelk. Many fishermen kill them because they destroy large numbers of quahog, which are harvested commercially and is a source of livelihood for many.
These large snails growing up to 8 inches are also known as conches or winkles. They are most active during the months of March through October. Both species of conchs are carnivorous predators, spending most of their time gliding along or just beneath the sand on the ocean floor, in search of food, consisting of other snails or clams or other shellfish. Conches are also attracted to traps or pots baited with dead limulus (Horseshoe crabs), or fish that is used for lobster bait.

So what was this grinding noise? For many, and I mean many, hours I observed that the grinding noise was coming from a conch that was attached to a large clam we called a quahog. After the grinding noise stopped quahog I noticed that at the edge of the quahog the shell was flattened exposing the mantle of the clam at the early stage. Eventually, the clam was dead with all its contents empty.

I took a conch to the lab and prepared the tissues of the pseudopodium for sectioning, staining, and embedding on a slide for microscopic examination. I used the usual Haematoxylin and Eosin staining but obtained more intense color staining when I used what was called a tri-chrome stain. I noticed intense staining of what appeared to be glands, probably gland that produced digestive juices. I made careful colored drawings at the time, which have since been lost after over 50 + years. I concluded that the conch grinded the edge of the clam and when the inside mantle was exposed the conch poured digestive juices into the clam killing it, of course, and sucking the digested contents out killing the clam.

Today I decided to Google how a conch eats a clam. One account, which coincides with what, scientists told me at the time of my observations, is the following:

“Snails that have an aperture canal, like the whelk, are carnivores. (Herbivores do not have this nose-protecting structure because they do not need to smell in order to find food.) Whelks are predators on burrowing clams. They use the nose, or proboscis, to bind these buried animals by sensing the stream of water flowing out of the clam’s feeding tubes. Once its prey is located the whelk digs down into the sand to capture it. To open the clam it wraps its muscular foot around the shells and pries the shell apart. Large clams may be opened by striking it with the whelk’s own strong shell until the clamshell cracks. Often the whelk will wedge the clam’ shell with the aperture canal and chip away pieces until an opening is formed. The mouth of the whelk is normally hidden deep within the body. When feeding it extends this structure, which resembles an elephant’s trunk, out to the food. (A large whelk’s “trunk” may be up to six inches long.) The mouth is at the very tip and, like most snails has a radula at the opening. The radula is a tooth-studded organ used to tear the food into small pieces to be swallowed.”

I have emboldened that part which was not supported by my observations. I do not see how a conch can pry the shell apart. Starfishes can do and actually do pry open a clam, but not a conch. How can a whelk strike the clam with its strong shell? It would take a third party to do this, and I never found a clam with a cracked shell. Chipping away pieces of the clam is not a correct description of the process. The conch actually grinds away at the border of the clam’ shell until the mantle of the clam is exposed.

Nothing beats actual observation. And this is mine.

nicola michael Tauraso, M.D.
6 June 2011

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